Britain in song

How do the British address their cities in song? With bathos, pathos and a large helping of silliness, says John Lewis

Thirty years ago, Billy Bragg rewrote Bobby Troup’s quintessential blues standard ‘Route 66’, a song made famous by the Rolling Stones — but with a twist. The line “get your kicks on Route 66” was swapped for “go motoring on the A13”, exchanging the likes of Oklahoma City and Winona, Arizona for Grays Thurrock, Romney and Basildon. 

“I did it partly as a joke,” says Bragg, “but there was a serious intent. Why not sing about where you come from? Why do we assume that places like Gallup, New Mexico are sexy because they’re American? I’ve played gigs in places like Oklahoma City and, believe me, it’s no more romantic than Shoeburyness.”

America has an endless ability to mythologise itself in song. Americans sing about walking in Memphis, about requesting directions to Amarillo, about leaving your heart in San Francisco and about having Georgia on your mind. They sing heartfelt songs about girls from California and ladies of the Laurel Canyon; they rhapsodise about telephone repairmen from Wichita and hippies from Mississippi. Conversely, we get Willie Rushton croaking out a tribute to “Neasden” and Half Man Half Biscuit droning about a “Bottleneck at Capel Curig”.

It’s not as if there aren’t songs about British places. If you go through the archives, you’ll find plenty of dark, tragic folk ballads about bonnie lasses from Lancashire and ne’er-do-wells from Gallowgate; you’ll hear bawdy music hall numbers about little sticks of Blackpool rock and cockneys going up the West End. The difference is that, where the Americans glamourise their landscape, we love to denigrate ours. When we sing songs about British places we tend do so with melancholy (a throwback to folk songs) or with humour (a nod to music hall). 

There are classic standards that romanticise English places — such as ‘A Nightingale Sung In Berkeley Square’, ‘The White Cliffs Of Dover’ or ‘A Foggy Day (In London Town)’ — but these were all written by American songwriters who’d barely set foot on this side of the Atlantic. Only in the desperate depths of war were British songwriters ever as romantic as this, with WWI inspiring Jack Judge’s ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ and Fred Godfrey’s ‘Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty’, and WW2 responsible for Noel Coward’s ‘London Pride’ and Vera Lynn’s ‘When You Hear Big Ben You’re Home Again’. 

Instead of romance, songs about British places tend to go for bathos. Music hall songwriters got big laughs whenever they inserted local place names into their songs. Gus Elen’s comic 1899 turn about the urbanisation of east London, ‘If It Wasn’t For The ‘Ouses In Between’, uses place names like Hackney and Wembley as punchlines for each verse. It’s a trick used by numerous vaudeville songs, including ‘Burlington Bertie From Bow’, ‘Knocked Em Down The Old Kent Road’ or George Formby’s innumerable, innuendo-laden ditties about Lancashire. 

This comic strain continues throughout much pop music. Zider-drinking west country oafs The Wurzels sang about pleasuring their local women with ‘My Somerset Crumpet Horn’; Benny Hill sang of “two-ton Ted from Teddington”, while Ian Dury (‘Billericay Dickie’), Morrissey (‘Dagenham Dave’) and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine (‘The Only Living Boy In New Cross’) all draw from this music hall tradition. When Squeeze sing “I never thought it could happen/with me and a girl from Clapham”, the clunky rhyme evokes a wry smile in an otherwise tear-jerking story.

Occasionally, provincial cities inspire sentimentality in pop songwriters. Gerry And The Pacemakers’ ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ was an unabashed attempt to strum the heartstrings, as was The Beatles’ double-A-sided paean to childhood haunts, John Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘Penny Lane’. Macca tried the same trick a decade later with ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, while folk rockers Lindisfarne lionised their native north-east with tracks like ‘Fog On The Tyne’ and ‘Sunderland Boys’. 

There have also been weirder tributes. It seems difficult to believe now, but Elton John — on his 1974 album Caribou — performed a song called ‘Grimsby’, co-written with his lyricist Bernie Taupin. “No cordon bleu can match the beauty of your pies and peas,” he sings, in an American accent, without a trace of irony. Long-forgotten 70s heartthrobs Smokie paid tribute to their hometown in ‘Going Back To Bradford’, in which the singer rejects the advances of a glamorous international groupie for the love of a West Yorkshire girl. 

But it is London that has inspired more pop songs than anywhere else. Some are romantic odes to the city (The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’, The Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’) but, beneath the affection, you can always detect the darker side of Swinging London. Think of Donovan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street'”, which starts with the image of a “violent hash smoker” vandalising a chocolate machine on a tube platform.

Punk opened the floodgates for songs about the capital and its endless suburbs. The Jam sang about bombs in Wardour Street and people getting beaten up in tube stations; The Clash sang dystopian anthems like ‘London’s Burning’ and ‘Guns Of Brixton’; Captain Sensible of the Damned wrote a heartfelt ode to Croydon; Sham 69 sang about ‘Hersham Boys’; Elvis Costello wrote a hymn to the Hoover Factory in Perivale.

London has continued to be a popular subject for bittersweet songs. Madness paid tribute to the homeless of Camden Town on ‘One Better Day’; The Pogues’ ‘Transmetropolitan’ celebrates London as a hooligan’s playground; Blur’s ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘London Loves’, the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ and Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ all paint a city that’s both a promised land of endless possibilities AND a vipers’ nest of danger.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, other cities started referencing themselves in song in a similar way. The Smiths painted their native Manchester as a rain-sodden hellhole, blighted by thugs (‘Rusholme Ruffians’), loveless bedsits (‘Miserable Lie’) and the Moors Murders (‘Suffer Little Children’). Pulp painted their hometown as a freakzone on ‘Sheffield: Sex City’ (amid the shagging couples, Jarvis Cocker witnesses: “old women clacking their tongues in the shade of crumbling concrete bus shelters”). Kimberley Rew from Katrina And The Waves wrote ‘Going Down To Liverpool’ (later covered by The Bangles) mourning an unemployed generation (“where you going with that UB40 in your hand?”). North of the border, a new wave of bands took us on picaresque voyages around Glasgow: witness Arab Strap’s ‘The First Big Weekend’ or Belle & Sebastian’s ‘A Century Of Elvis’. 

Some of these provincial anthems might look uplifting and patriotic, but invariably they’re not. Instead of celebrating Liverpool’s waterway, The Stone Roses’ ‘Mersey Paradise’ sees Ian Brown fantasising about drowning his ex-girlfriend. Luke Haines, on his 2006 single ‘Leeds United’, sounds like he’s singing a jaunty football anthem; on closer inspection it’s a pitch-black comedy told from the point of view of the Yorkshire Ripper, stopping for a pint in Chapeltown’s red-light district before going home to his house-proud wife.

Sometimes, bands get a bit carried away and just start listing places. The Smiths did it with ‘Panic’ (“Panic on the streets of Carlisle/Dublin, Dundee, Humberside”) as did the KLF with ‘It’s Grim Up North’ (“Dewsbury, Halifax, Bingley, Bramall are all in the North”). The Proclaimers’ ‘Letter From America’ catalogues the post-industrial wastelands that Scottish émigrés have left behind (“Methil no more/Irvine no more/Bathgate no more/Linwood no more”), while The Beautiful South’s ‘Manchester’ is an inventory of the city’s suburbs (“from Cheetham Hill to Wythenshaw it’s rain/Gorton, Salford, Sale, pretty much the same”). 

Nowadays, when our pop stars sing in their own accents without kowtowing to America, there are more songs than ever being sung about British places. Grime MCs represent their east London postcodes; The Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs write clever kitchen-sink dramas set in Yorkshire; Elbow’s most recent album is a bittersweet hymn to Manchester; while Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Dizzee Rascal take us on white-knuckle rides around London. Lily Allen’s ‘LDN’ paints a picture of a city that is both beautiful and dangerous (“When you look with your eyes/Everything seems nice/But if you look twice/you can see it’s all lies”); it displays a curious fusion of pride, melancholy and self-loathing that’s uniquely British. You can’t imagine someone singing a similar song about New York, Paris or Oklahoma City.

List of songs for the map (with some geographical spread, from north to south)

‘Mull Of Kintyre’ — Wings 

‘Sunshine On Leith (Edinburgh)’ — The Proclaimers

‘Lady Of Carlisle’ — Pentangle

‘Fog On The Tyne’ — Lindisfarne 

‘With Me Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock’ — George Formby

‘Dirty Old Town (about Salford)’ — Ewan MacColl

‘Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl’ — Elbow 

‘Sheffield On Sea’ — Richard Hawley

‘Birmingham Blues’ — ELO

‘Norwich To Auschwitz’ — Jarvis Cocker

‘Bron-Yr-Aur’ — Led Zeppelin 

‘Swansea Town’ — Max Boyce

‘Cardiff Afterlife’ — Manic Street Preachers

‘Bristol To London’ — Tricky 

‘London Is The Place For Me’ — Lord Kitchener

‘Margate’ — Chas And Dave

‘Portsmouth’ — Mike Oldfield 

‘You’re Not From Brighton’ — Fatboy Slim

‘(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover’ — Vera Lynn

© John LewisDo Not Disturb, Summer 2011

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